As dark clouds take over Delhi’s skies, bringing some respite from the scorching heat, holidayers near India Gate make the most of a pleasant evening.
Abutting the monument, dedicated to fallen British Indian troops of World War I, is the National War Memorial, a sprawling architectural ode to Indian soldiers who have lost their lives in the wars since Independence.
Days ahead of the twentieth Vijay Diwas (July 26), marking India’s victory over archrival Pakistan in the Kargil war, the memorial is abuzz with visitors. Some pose for selfies with India Gate in the background, others next to the marble slabs inscribed with the names of the fallen soldiers.
However, strike up a conversation with the average millennial visitor, and it becomes evident that she knows little about the 1999 war that claimed the lives of over 500 Indian soldiers and injured over 1,300. When asked specific questions about the clash, many squirm like they are on the hot seat of Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). This is despite the aggressive nationalism prevalent in India today as evidenced by the many landmarks dedicated to the war’s heroes and Bollywood’s many eulogies to them.
Twenty-year-old Shonali Saxena of Bengaluru, for instance, offers only a blank smile when asked about Kargil. She is at the memorial only because she overheard some passersby mention it. Her two friends, Deepak Singh and Rajesh Kumar, are equally flummoxed and mumble something gleaned long ago from history textbooks. Clearly, they have not heard of Vijay Diwas.
For Akshat Jha, another visitor and a native of Madhubani in the eastern state of Bihar, other facts of Kargil aren’t as important as the enemy who was defeated: Pakistan. The 18-year-old theatre artiste is convinced that Pakistan deserved the treatment it got.
“I mean, if they (Pakistan) keeps harbouring terrorists, the Indian Army has to teach them a lesson,” Jha says, adding that WhatsApp forwards on patriotism, films like Uri: The Surgical Strike, and pride in the Indian Army guide such views. “My parents used to talk about the war often at home. They used to live in Punjab at the time, very close to the India-Pakistan border,” Jha says. “They often recall the curfew and the restrictions that the government had put in place, and how they were worried about their safety.”
He knows little else, such as how the Pakistanis infiltrated, how India reclaimed the crucial Tiger Hill, or who the martyrs were. Not surprisingly, Jha and his four friends had merely stumbled into the war memorial while strolling through the gardens, and weren’t there by any force of conviction.
Elsewhere, too, this trend is prevalent, as Harrshi Padmanabhan’s experience suggests. “We (friends) do discuss the news we receive on our phones. But that conversation doesn’t go beyond 10 minutes. So, Kargil is something we have only distantly heard of,” says the 20-year-old management graduate from Coimbatore.
A professor at a well-known college under Delhi University confirms this trend. Her students largely have an aggressive, nationalist, and often communal reaction to the Kashmir issue and, by extension, the Kargil War, she said under the condition of anonymity.
However, there are also those who recognise that war can be costly and that nationalistic rhetoric never offers the complete picture.
“The Kargil War has always been a moment in history from which we derive great, egotistical satisfaction. But we forget that Pakistan is a small country, and China, our other neighbour, is a whole different story,” says Ravit Yadav, a resident of Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Growing up, he often heard tales from his father, an Indian government employee, of how India was capable of teaching Pakistan a lesson. The law student believes such pride was also a result of a lot of “misinformation about the war” that his peers were sold on. “It’s great to feel pride in our armed forces, but are we also paying attention to those soldiers who don’t even get decent food to eat?”
Yadav, though, is largely an outlier in his nuanced opinion of the war. That could, in part, be because most Indian millennials’ primary knowledge about Kargil comes from annual school events, and little else.
“The oldest recollection I have is of celebrating Vijay Diwas in school. We used to put up plays when we were in primary classes,” recalls Anand Pendse, a native of Ratlam in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. As a history student, Pendse says he has seen documentaries on war heroes like Major Vikram Batra.
Landmarks are also key reminders of that war. Abhilaksh Verma of Lucknow, a student of philosophy at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, recalls that a major intersection in his native town of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, is named after Lieutenant Manoj Pandey, another Kargil hero.
“I do remember very early on—when I was three years old and thereafter—several people in the household talking about it (the war) as a major event in the national life of the country,” he says. This is also, in part, a consequence of his uncle having served in the India Air Force.
Not everyone, though, shares that collective memory. Who, then, is at fault for this ignorance of history?
The older generation and the political leadership, says former diplomat and foreign affairs expert Rajiv Dogra, and not the millennials themselves. “A day of commemoration is a ritual and rituals don’t reach out to people in the modern age. What we need is constant communication,” he says. “A memorial is one way to go, as are museums that interact with history. Just like in the case of the Partition, where a private organisation set up a museum in Amritsar, we need Kargil to be a part of our memory. And we must remember to not let history repeat itself.”